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Football's forgotten men

Omar Abdulrahman: The best Asian footballer never to play in Europe

4:00 AM EDT 6/4/22
Many believe the UAE international is the best Asian footballer never to play in Europe, but he could earn his place in the spotlight this week

Heung-min Son. Takehiro Tomiyasu. Serdar Azmoun.

Just some of the Asian superstars plying their trade in Europe.

Omar Abdulrahman is a name who should probably have been mentioned in the same breathe if all had gone well.

Except few people outside of Asia will actually be familiar with the UAE star.

Abdulrahman has been the shining light of UAE football for the last decade, one of Asian football's most promising talents, who even earned a trial at Manchester City.

But he is also the man many call the finest Asian footballer never to play club football in Europe

The 2016 AFC Player of the Year is now 30 years old, his career harmed by injury and a lack of exposure outside of the middle east.

Failed moves and false dawns have been the general theme of Abdulrahman's career.

A bold and skilful No.10 with a relaxed playing style but an eye for a killer pass, Abdulrahman attained cult status among world football aficionados.

However, he also came to be known for his unorthodox hairstyles โ€“ throughout his career, he has sported an afro that even Carlos Valderrama or Marouane Fellaini would be proud of.

At Al-Ain, his boyhood club where he spent a decade until 2018, he scored 44 goals and provided 88 assists in 175 appearances, with the club winning the league title twice.

Several European clubs attempted to sign him, with Man City coming closest in 2012 after he impressed at the summer's Olympics in London.

He did well on trial in Manchester but work permit issues โ€“ he had made less than 10 senior international appearances for a nation ranked outside FIFA's top 50 โ€“ made signing him impossible.

Since then, possible moves have come and gone. There was interest from Arsenal, a loan bid from Nice and an offer from Benfica, but a move to Europe never materialised.

Indeed, save for a five-game loan spell with Al-Hilal in Saudi Arabia โ€“ during which he tore his cruciate knee ligament โ€“ Abdulrahman has played his entire club career in UAE.

As well as his lengthy stay at Al-Ain, he also had an injury-disrupted stint at Al Jazira, while he is now with Shabab Al-Ahli, having signed as a free agent in February this year.

Abdulrahman staying in the Emirates can be put down partly to UAE's smaller standing in world football, but also at least partly to his celebrity status within the country.

For example, after being named player of the tournament at the 2013 Gulf Cup, he was gifted a Bugatti Veyron.

He has been the face of Nike and Pro Evolution Soccer in his homeland, and earned wages far beyond those he could expect at a mid-ranking European club.

Through his mid-20s, Abdulrahman was reluctant to leave a world where he was the main man, and those in charge of UAE football were happy to have their golden child close at hand.

He is no longer untouchable, though. He missed two penalties in the 2017 Gulf Cup final, before suffering his serious knee injury not long after, setting off a chain of niggling fitness issues which have plagued him since. He has not played for the UAE since November 2019.

On the last day of the 2021 January transfer window, Abdulrahman was released by Al-Jazira after missing the entire season through injury. There is no longer talk of the big move to Europe.

The hopes that he would be the trailblazer from the Arabian West Asian nations to crack the biggest clubs in the continent next door have been dashed.

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